Supernatural is back. Hellatus is over, but this time it’s bittersweet. Finally, and all too soon, it’s the last first time. Here’s our review of Supernatural’s fifteenth and final season premiere.
Supernatural season 15, episode 1, titled “Back and to the Future,” picked up, as promised, directly after the season 14 finale, where we left Team Free Will fighting back to back as a circle of living dead beings closed in on them. Their child, Jack, lay dead on the ground, his life force burned out by God when Dean refused to play out the correct beats of the script that we learnt that God – author Chuck Shurley – had been writing all along.
What it means to Sam, Dean and Castiel to discover this – that the horrors of their lives have all been constructed by a writer obsessed with watching sentient characters act out his “favorite show” – will be the big question asked in season 15, the big hurdle to overcome. This show has always been heavily steeped in the concept of determinism vs free will. Now we – and the Winchesters – are going to discover what that truly means, once and for all. This final fight will be for their own freedom, and when we say goodbye, we’ll have learned what their future – a world beyond the pages of Chuck’s Winchester Gospels – looks like. But in the meantime, we’ve got a bit of a ghost spill to clean up.
I’m not going to share a play-by-play of Supernatural 15×01 because you would not be reading this if you had not watched the episode already, probably multiple times. Instead, after every episode of the season, I’ll be sharing a list of takeaways – strong impressions, standout moments, things to puzzle over, theories and speculation about the groundwork being laid each week. In honor of the season, I’m thinking of calling these episode reviews our “Friday Fifteen.” I can not guarantee that there will be exactly fifteen items. I cannot guarantee they will come out on a Friday. I cannot guarantee any consistency in length or tone. But here we go. The beginning of the end is here.
‘Supernatural’ season 15, episode 1 review
‘Back and to the Future’
Dean and culpability aren’t great bedfellows. He huge issues with it that extend in both directions – he often carries blame and self-hatred for things that he is totally blameless in, and he assigns blame outwards, often in very harsh ways, when his own errors or misplaced faith do, in fact, have a lot to do with the current predicament. But since Mary’s death, his grief-stricken inconsistent lashing out has covered territory ranging from denial of the fact that he knew there was anything wrong with Jack and pinning the consequences of his turn to darkness 100% on Cas, claiming he himself always knew Jack was a threat, calling Jack just another monster, blaming Sam’s actions for the loss of Jack’s soul, and believing God’s word wholeheartedly because it matched his own desire to kill Jack despite Sam and Cas’s best attempts to bring Dean around to finding a way to save him.
To be clear, I am not blaming Dean for the Apocalyptic wrath of Chuck. At all. In fact, I feel the opposite – both his sense of duty, which led him to believe God and ultimately choose to sacrifice both himself and his child with the Equalizer when he heard that Jack would end the world, and his open heart, which led him to then ultimately choose not kill Jack because he believed, even without a soul, in Jack as an innocent worth saving when Jack self-declared as a monster, are characteristics of a true hero. What I am pointing out is that this classic coping mechanism of Dean’s is out on display in full force in 15×01 and I think Supernatural is telegraphing that this behavior, one of his biggest and most series-consistent flaws, is going to be responsible for some sort of final personal confrontation – a last chance to come to terms with it and hopefully grow from it.
In 15×01, their tension quickly escalates from humorous, impatient bickering (“Well, I wouldn’t starve…”) to a serious moment of contention in what is admittedly an extremely high-pressure environment, when Jack’s body is reanimated by a demon who claims he can help the group. I really enjoyed the moment when Dean and Cas are fighting over letting him use Jack’s body – their stress at the situation quickly turns to anger at each other about their take on the situation, and Sam has step in and say “Cas, Dean’s right,” in order for Cas to back down and for things to move along. There is this unspoken but, to my read, very clear dynamic at work there, in which Sam offered the interception and Cas deferred to Sam because everyone present in the room is hyper-aware that sometimes Dean and Cas just yell at each other about their feelings and it escalates without it being a matter of right or wrong, emotional responses steering further and further away from the actual point. And in that moment there needed to be a call made about that pattern – “Does he have a point or is it just us butting heads?”
Of course who’s objectively right and who’s wrong in the long run when it comes to accepting the demon’s help and letting him defile Jack’s corpse is yet to be seen, but the way this went down in 15×01 is interesting. Sam’s often mediated between Dean and Cas before – far too often for his liking, we must assume – but for some reason it felt new in the sense of feeling like all three of them were aware of it – that Dean and Cas are both self-aware about the fact their arguments quickly escalate past useful logic, and that a third party opinion is required to cut through and get to the actual point. Keep a close eye on how they react to one another. Supernatural wants us paying attention to it in a big way. Something bigger is brewing, I can see the outline of it and a further interaction at the end of the episode added a little shading to the sketch in my mind.
And after fans have spent the last two years getting to know Calvert’s personality from conventions, meet and greets and interviews, they’ll know that he’s cool as a cucumber, with a sharp and bone dry sense of humor, even when he’s talking about being the veteran cast’s favorite person to torture and mess with on set. So watching him as Belphegor – I’mma call him Bel – is nothing short of fantastic. I am, and I cannot stress this enough, completely obsessed with him. He is the MVP of this episode. Controversial? Maybe. But it’s the truth.
Working with his co-stars in such a different dynamic, Calvert is clearly having the time of his life playing with this, and watching him hold the upper hand in scenes against his “three dads” – curious, callous, sassy, lackadaisical, garrulous, smooth (that swerve of the shoulder barge!) making them feel uncomfortable and keeping them on their toes, I was having the time of mine. He is so freakin’ good. On top of everything else that comes with having a familiar actor inhabit a new role in the property where they’re used to playing another one, the fact that you could feel his expressions and paint a picture of Bel’s personality through his face without the use of his eyes is incredible. If this kid isn’t number one on the call sheet of his next project, there is no justice in the world of acting.
No matter the outcome, we’ll always have his queer and thirsty car scene checking out passersby – and Dean – to cherish for eternity. But when considering Bel’s future on the show, it may be worth checking out his role in mythology. Belphegor is the name of a “real” demon from the Bible – Supernatural didn’t invent the name. He’s also mentioned in Paradise Lost. In some Christian texts, he is known as one of the Seven Princes of Hell, and the representative of Sloth in the Seven Deadly Sins. Supernatural has done both the Princes of Hell and the Seven Deadly Sins within their own mythology, so this may not follow through for our Bel, but there are a few things that may be pertinent to know. He’s sometimes known as Lord of the Gap or Opening, so maybe he’s meant to be looking after the rift between Earth and Hell? He’s commonly associated with helping people make discoveries – his speciality is tempting souls by suggesting ideas or inventions that will make them rich without a lot of hard work, which ties into the Sloth thing.
He’s also associated with sex and romance, which could explain the whole “horny on main” behaviour exhibited in this episode, which made Dean so unsettled. The Belphegor lore originated with Baal Peor, a Moabite god associated with sex, orgies and promiscuity, who was worshiped in the form of a phallus – which should ping a huge, throbbing alert to the character’s referenced past. Belphegor was of interest to master manipulator Machiavelli, who wrote a novella about the legend of this demon coming to Earth to look for a mate, tasked by Hell with discovering if marital love is a true part of the human condition. This tale has been adapted into many “Devil takes a wife” stories over the centuries. So, do with all that what you will.
A friend told me that they haven’t been as creeped out by Supernatural as they were watching Gacy hunt the mother and daughter, but I personally dislike horror movies in general and while monsters and mythology and mysteries I enjoy, I have never enjoyed the actual “horror movie” elements of this show, especially when they’re featuring characters we never even learn the names of, that have no story of their own. I am not particularly looking forward to more episodes that spend this much time relishing a who’s who of the back catalogue of monster of the week villains (as opposed to the return of old foes who were a character we loved in their own right.)
I understand why their presence in 15×01 was narratively important – seeing them again drives home, for the brothers, that feeling of Chuck’s meddling creating a hopeless cycle where literally nothing they did mattered, since day one. Look, here’s the proof. All the good you did is undone. But a) we already know that isn’t true, and b) I was basically unhappy any time 15×01 took us away from the guys to something that I wasn’t emotionally invested in. This has not been an issue in the past – I usually enjoy the worldbuilding of an episode and meeting the new characters of the week. Maybe I’m hypersensitive to it now. The time we have left with boys is precious – any screen time that’s not on them needs to be powerful as hell in its own right. I want to care for 100% of the minutes Supernatural has left on the air. I did not care in those particular minutes. This is my only real quibble with the episode.
But between “That was a long time ago.”/“Depends how you look at it.” and “He wouldn’t hold a grudge, right?”, Supernatural is laying the groundwork for this future Original Flavor Michael conflict, which will undoubtedly be connected to the return of Jake Abel as the Winchesters’ half-brother Adam, the vessel Michael ended up wearing and who he took into the Cage in the same way that Lucifer took Sam. I just hope that alongside the Adam and Michael plot, this could mean we also get to see some sort of drama involving Dean facing some of the people he tortured in Hell – presumably they’re among the 3 billion souls who have the potential to return topside.
I was proud of him telling Dean ‘no,’ his outright refusal to be left alone with Bel when Dean tried to assign roles to the group in order to complete their task of containing the ghosts of the town, turning the pairings into Dean and Bel on the spellwork, and then Sam and Cas evacuating houses. Remember, Castiel can see the true face of demons, so not only can he see Jack’s burnt-out body sassing around, he can also see the demon layered beneath it. It brings a whole new meaning to “I can’t even look at him.” Though I seem to remember not too long ago, Dean saying the very same thing about the real Jack. Why was that again? Oh yeah…
The damage done by the Equalizer is more than physical. When Cas checks on that shoulder wound after the gut one and attempts to heal it as well, it triggers a vision – definitely seen Sam’s mind, possibly seen but certainly peripherally felt by Cas – of a version of Sam, lit in red, with demon eyes and an evil smirk, watching his begging brother crumple to the floor, and flicking his head, presumably to psychically snap Dean’s. Sam’s reaction, before and after the attempted healing, is petrified. “It’s nothing, it’s fine, it’s just…” Just what, Sam? And his “Did you fix it?” the way he looks around, scared and embarrassed as if to check if anyone else can see…
Whether Cas now knows the specifics or not, I can’t tell, but he discovers in horror that the wound contains an energy that he’s never felt before, and that he cannot heal. “Like I said, it’s fine,” Sam claims and no, no it is not. Everything about the way this is framed indicates to me that Sam has been having these kinds of visions since he got the wound, silently suffering and knowing something was seriously, deeply wrong. This information makes his already-admirable strength in working through the pain on their mission heroically resilient beyond words.
Sam’s deepest fears have always been tied to the darkness he believed lies within him, the things he once believed made him fated to be cursed with demon blood, that made him fated as the perfect vessel for Lucifer. If season 15 is tapping into a redux of his visions and his psychic abilities, whether it’s a discovery that he has dormant powers still within him, whether it’s to do with God exploiting him via the connecting wound, or whether it’s both, I am hungry for it. My ideal circumstance would be if we discovered that yes, his power is real and repressed, and his final personal journey is about overcoming his insecurities that tell him he is inherently corruptible and dark, and bending that power to be a useful and positive weapon to wield in his life, preferably as Rowena’s student witch. But right now, whatever is happening is preying on his worst nightmares, the ideas about himself that debilitate him. And he’s just been walking around like that all episode. Saaaaaaaaaam.
Even angry at Castiel, and distracted and devastated by the state of the universe, Dean cares about him enough to do the bare minimum of checking in after the pair had been separated for much of the episode. Cas is alive, uninjured, and ready to keep going with their mission, but he isn’t “okay,” and he does need to talk about the reasons why, so if that had been the long and short of it, it still would have been a douche move on Dean’s part, an intentional cop-out. But from the way Cas was studying Sam as he escorted the people they rescued inside, I will bet cash money that the “but…” that Dean cut off was going to be Cas flagging Dean about something being wrong with Sam. “I’m okay, but Sam’s not.” “I’m okay, but I have to tell you something.” In other words, Cas was taking care to not make the same mistake again – a mistake he has often made, the one that he made with Jack, keeping the state of things to himself in order to try and fix it alone, without burdening Sam and Dean. Cas was doing what Dean has always wanted within their relationship – properly communicating issues as they occur. And of course, if the issue is with Sam there’s no way that Cas would keep that from Dean unless Sam asked him to, and probably not even then. But as of yet, Sam has not told Dean about it either.
I will continue to bet cash money on the prospect that between now and when something goes down with Sam’s visions – when Dean finds out – that circumstances will have prevented Cas trying to alert Dean again. Maybe he’ll try and Dean will cut him off again, maybe Dean will avoid him, maybe they’ll be needed on separate tasks when handling the immediate crisis of the evacuation and the literal ghost town they’ve just created. And I will bet my house on the concept that if this is indeed the case, Dean is going to blow up at Cas for not telling him about Sam and unfairly blame him, even though it will have been Dean’s fault for not trying to listen when Cas got a chance to try. Yes, Cas could have followed him or shouted over him or something, but he’s pretty fragile right now, and though he would not compromise Sam’s safety out of spite, that dismissal clearly stung and we are meant to pay attention to it – Belphegor the one-demon peanut gallery was there to make sure of that.
Cas doesn’t have a lot of emotional resilience at the moment, he’s pretty zoned out – from losing Jack, from dealing with Bel, and from learning the truth about Chuck (I hope we get a deep dive into what this revelation means for an angel, because that’s such a different relationship with God to that of a human) but he’s also clearly losing patience with Dean’s behavior. From their TV Guide cover story, we know that Collins says Cas is going to take a personal time-out and leave the guys for a while “in a huff.” While the reasons for the build up of stress and trauma are many-fold, I think the straw that broke the camel’s back is going to be another round of Dean’s irrational harsh treatment, even if it’s not about the Sam thing. In the same TV Guide feature, Jensen Ackles revealed that the stand-out moment that has “got to him” so far, in terms of coming to terms with Supernatural ending, was filming the scene in which Cas decides he’s going away for a while, which, based on the dates of filming and the date of this article, will happen in episode 15×02 or 15×03. “It wasn’t necessarily a goodbye, but it felt like that to me. It made me think about how it’s the last time we’re going to [have a moment like] that.”
Now, Cas won’t be absent from the show for long – Collins may not appear episode 15×04 or 15×05, but he has been on set filming for 15×06, 15×07 and 15×08, though whether he’s off on his own journey or reunited with the boys remains to be seen – so Ackles’ comment makes me curious if, in the scene that he mentioned, Dean and Cas themselves think that it’s more final than Ackles and Collins know the parting to be, and it makes me certain that the “last time we’ll do this” element is in reference to the pair’s last big ‘break up.’ These two have had quite a few over the years (as have Sam and Dean) and despite – no, not despite, because of – the PR scaremongering about this conflict, I feel very certain that a huge Come to Jesus moment about their years-long contentious dynamic is on the way.
Over the course of this season, Dean and Cas are going to have it out. And it will hurt like hell. And they’re going to come out of it closer and more compassionate about each other, with a better understanding of why they always clash in such cruel ways. They have always struggled with how to treat each other or do right by each other in a way that the other accepts or recognizes. They speak different ‘love languages’ and that’s hurt them many times – they don’t receive the intention in the other’s actions well. But before the show ends, no matter who lives or dies or whatever happens at the close, these two are gonna learn to meet each other where they are. I am not talking about a romantic reveal. But the reason they’re so fascinating as a fandom ship is because of their canonical aggressively devoted bond, which is hard to categorize and is very clearly a thing that sometimes they don’t know how to deal with or express. Well, they’re gonna deal with it. That’s what this is all about. I look forward to the final chapter of their unique relationship.
It worries me that Sam claims to be fine – that he’s avoiding telling Dean about the non-physical aspects of his injury. It worries me that there’s no exit wound – of course, the gun didn’t fire a bullet, but this feels like a metaphor – Sam can’t get the Equalizer’s energy out of him. It’s embedded. Dean’s clearly suspicious of the wound, but he also clearly believes that Sam is telling him everything that he is aware of having borne the wound all day. And Sam’s reluctant compliance as Dean’s patient offers us a chance to relish some much-needed Dean sweetness – this was a tough episode for the character – as he distracts his little brother from the pain of disinfectant with both the memory of their childhood relationship and the same joke-telling tactic he actually used on Little Sam.
But the real meat of the scene is the boys’ first deep dive into the nature of their own free will after the Chuck revelation, as they take a minute to actually talk about it all. We know that this sense of stolen autonomy will be the season’s main obstacle to overcome, and the setup of all that as it’s laid here gives me a huge bubble of hope for Supernatural’s final outcome, in terms of what the show is asking us to imagine for the boys, what it’s telling us to want for them and believe they deserve.
During the hiatus, there was some concerned speculation between fans over whether the Chuck reveal implied that the characters’ actual decisions or minds had been manipulated – whether the things they said and did were ever genuinely them, or whether they themselves were being puppeteered, rendering every moment of the past 15 years as basically meaningless. It is an understandable prediction given how meta the concept of Chuck the writer telling them how their story is going to end, that they’re his favorite show, already is, but it’s a little too Stranger Than Fiction for my tastes and never felt in line with what the show was planning to do.
Instead, Dean’s “rats in a maze” comment in this final scene of 15×01 basically establishes the baseline to go off in terms of the characters’ personhood and free will. This is not Stranger Than Fiction. It’s The Hunger Games. Sure, they can make choices about what they do with what they’ve got to work with, but at the end of the day, they’re making choices about constructed threats placed in their path for the sole purpose of watching them struggle. Living with the knowledge of that, rather than believing that your trials were just the shitty luck of the draw, not in anyone’s control – even God’s – is nothing short of crushing. It’d be enough to send anyone into a spiral of nihilism.
But not our Winchesters. Instead, armed with this horrible awareness about a life full of suffering, Sam gives a patented Sam Speech on how all the things they did, all the people they saved, they still mattered – this aspect, along with the silent little girl’s final “thank you,” made me think of that cliched, but still moving and thematically appropriate modern fable of the man on the beach throwing starfish back into the water, you know, “It made a difference to that one” – and how now, with this all out in the opportunity, the brothers were actually looking at an opportunity.
If God has given up on this world, if he’s gotten bored and moved on, leaving them to perish… Good. The world is theirs for the taking. Or more accurately, the saving. If they can do this – and I love Sam’s self correction – not “if,” but “when” – if they can save the world from God’s havoc one more time, and finish the job, then the maze is no more. They’re free. Truly free, to put down the burdens of their life, to make their own choices about their future, to not just survive, but to live. The fact that the season 15 premiere is laying out that finish line for us makes the alternative unthinkable. It’s what the Supernatural fandom has been dreaming of for years. It’s what I’ve been writing about since I first started covering the show, at the beginning of Andrew Dabb’s tenure as showrunner.
In my very first Supernatural article, which addressed the then-current speculation over a) whether the show would make it to 300 episodes and b) whether 300 would be the series finale. Well, we know both of those answers now, but when speculating about what a potential series finale would look like – at the time, Ackles and Padalecki were still talking about a Butch and Sundance “blaze of glory,” which, no – I said that Supernatural “needs to end with the Winchesters getting a win that they never thought possible — beating the system that they have been basically trapped in since childhood […] for me to feel good about the show ending, they need to pull off a final feat that no one ever thought was doable, which results in the reward of Sam and Dean’s load being lightened.”
Little did we know then just how faceted the system they’d been trapped in actually was, but the idea holds firmer than ever.
The fact that Sam and Dean have hope for this win, this freedom means that we are meant to have hope for it too, particularly when juxtaposed against Chuck’s ominous “final installment,” as revealed in the Shaving People production trailer. “I can see it now. ‘Supernatural: The End.’ And the cover is just a gravestone that says ‘Winchester.’”
Yo Chuck, full offense, but fuck off. They’re not yours anymore. You can’t have them.
There’s no universe in which this show ends without granting the Winchesters the peace and freedom they’ve earned a hundred times over, and the chance to actually exercise their own free will on their own terms. While there’s a case for that sweet release involving their final, permanent deaths in some sort of sacrificial act (I do fear for Castiel and what his journey achieving freedom will look like, the angel with a crack in his chassis, clearly made wrong on purpose by God to be a part of this free will story that no other angel could ever be) the fact that Chuck actually mentions their grave really makes me think that won’t be the case for at least Sam and Dean, if not all three of them.
Of course any of these guys would sacrifice themselves to save the world for everyone else living in it. They’ve done it before. But Chuck didn’t care about anyone else enough to steal their autonomy. Just them. The fact that we’ve learned that they specifically were Chuck’s favorite playthings – that this world was designed around them, that most everyone else affected by the monsters and apocalypses and all were just, much like the actual TV show Supernatural that we watch in our real universe, supplementary canon fodder for Chuck’s obsession with writing and watching the story of Sam and Dean – means that this time, it is not just a fight to save everyone else. This time, knowing what’s truly at stake, they’re fighting for themselves. While saving the world for everyone else and dying in the process may be noble as hell, it’s what Chuck wants to see. It’s what he’s orchestrated many times over. A world with free will and no Winchesters isn’t justice for the crimes committed. It isn’t the payback Chuck deserves for singling them out and making them the center of the universe in such a horrific way. It isn’t the fulfillment of this epic story.
No. It’s clear what Supernatural is telling us, right from the season 15 premiere. What the Winchesters deserve. Living well is the best revenge. But – as we know – before that can happen?
They’ve got work to do.